Late afternoon, a few days before St Crispin's. The mist crept along just above the ground, drifting between the trees of the forest, clinging to Montjoy's white cloak, deadening the sound of his horse's hoof-beats. He rode in a little circle of grey-white, at the centre of his own private, moving world. He was sure of the path, though; sure of his way. He always had been. That was why he was Herald of France.
The trees surrounded him. The tallest were shedding their leaves, which sailed to the ground as he passed them, dull copper and gold and tawny; other trees were smaller, green-black mounds of foliage between the nobler giants. There were noises in the forest, of men moving at a distance, the whinny of a horse, a stag roaring far off, its mind on the hunt for hinds, not on the risk of being hunted itself.
His horse tossed its head, sidling suddenly, and danced off the path. Montjoy's hand tightened on the reins - “Steady! I'm here!” Close ahead, something loomed out of the mist and the early twilight. Solid, heavy and very real. Montjoy peered under the brim of his hat. Then he swept it off, and bowed his head.
“Your Grace.” For it was the Duke of Exeter. No-one else could loom like that, thought Montjoy, managing in time to clamp down on a smile. Even on foot, Exeter could dominate a man on horseback, just as he had dominated the entire French court.
“You. Herald. Where do you go? Not to spy on our army, I trust.”
Montjoy sat at his ease in the saddle, and regarded him distantly, pretending for the moment to be the Duke of Orleans, or the Constable. Not the Dauphin, though. Never that. “My lord Duke. I ride about my King's business, and whether that is to spy or no is – your pardon - no business of yours.”
Exeter frowned. He took a step forward. Montjoy patted his horse's neck; his legs tightened around its barrel, but he did not give the signal to gallop, not just yet. For at the edge of his hearing was the crunch of footsteps in the fallen leaves, and he glimpsed a flash of reddish-gold that matched them for colour. There in the mist on the border of their fog-bound circle, as if he'd stepped out of some tale of errantry in a forest of long ago, stood a king.
He was wrapped up in a cloak, and – by the looks of him - had been wrapped up in his own thoughts too. But those eyes were coming to full alertness now; and Montjoy dismounted before him, swept off his hat, and bowed; not deeply, but with all the elegance which he could command. Henry of England.
“Uncle. I heard voices – and here you are, beating the bounds. No shepherd ever had a better guard-dog. You make a mastiff look like a lap-dog! And you, Herald. I might ask you the same question as my uncle - though I think you're no spy. What could you tell your masters that they're not full aware of? My army is hungry, tired and few in numbers. That's no secret.”
A sudden burst of rain rattled on the leaves still clinging to the trees. Henry tilted his head to look up at tawny oak and beech, then back at Montjoy; who felt the glance like fingers brushing over his body. Henry was checking for knife or dagger, maybe, but still, Montjoy shivered. The cold, dank air had not produced a shiver like that. He stared back, transfixed.
Like a flash of warm fire, a gleam of amusement entered Henry's voice. He continued to look at Montjoy, but addressed Exeter. “Uncle. You will rust in that armour. Get you back to the camp and into a tent. I will walk the bounds. I'm halfway round already.”
Montjoy tried to imagine the Dauphin doing the same, as an alternative to re-imagining that searching look. He watched as Exeter, growling (silently, but it was certainly a growl) bowed infinitesimally and stumped off down the track-way. The fog closed in behind him.
“Now. Let's take cover ourselves. Just for ten minutes, while the rain passes over. Here's shelter of a sort. And fire, perhaps!” Henry turned to kick at a pile of embers from an abandoned camp-fire beside the track. Sparks rose in a little flurry. He pulled a sooty branch, as long as his forearm, from the ashy heap, and stepped away, over what looked like a low wall just a course or two high, to take shelter under one of those low evergreen trees – a yew - that grew close at hand. In the quiet of the fog-bound forest, Montjoy could hear a low music of water: a spring, perhaps.
He was familiar with yews, as all travellers were: waymarkers, trees of crossroads, of gateways and churchyards, of beginnings and ends.
Following close behind, Montjoy tethered his horse to a convenient branch, while Henry scraped together a pile of brushwood and the driest leaves. Then he breathed onto the smouldering branch and set it into the tinder. A thin spiral of smoke ascended from it. Henry waved his hand to fan the spark within. “Sit, Herald,” he said, and did so himself.
There was a thick root, knuckling out from an equally knotted trunk. Nowhere else to sit except on the ground, or one or two much smaller roots. Henry, impatient at Montjoy's hesitation, pointed to the space next to him, and Montjoy, given no alternative, lowered himself gingerly to sit next to the King of England. “Thank-you, your Majesty.” He glanced, out of the corner of his eye, and through the gloom, at the profile so close to him; the curve of the cheek, the beard just starting to show. He glanced away again.
Henry leaned forward to prod at the little fire, and as his did so, his cloak fell open a little way. Montjoy saw his armour - a tight-fitting coat-of-plates, not full steel like Exeter's – and the hilt of a dagger at his belt.
The fire flickered as it fed on new fuel, and grew a little.
“To ask again the question my uncle asked. Where do you ride, so late in the day, and alone?”
“To the castle close by.” He had no reason not to answer, and fully, when it was asked fairly. “I am to ask the chatelaine to be ready to receive any wounded that may come her way; to have beds and bandages ready.”
“If she's worth her salt, she'll have them ready without being asked!”
“It is a courtesy. We would not be lacking in that.”
“I cannot imagine that you would ever be lacking in courtesy, Herald! No matter what message you carry,” and a sidelong grin reminded Montjoy of those damned tennis-balls.
After a moment to collect himself, Montjoy replied, gravely, “Your Majesty is too kind,” and mentally kicked himself for coming up with nothing better.
“That's not something I've often been accused of.” Another grin.
“I mean... yes, you are a king. But here I sit, here and now...”
“Indeed. Tell me: this castle you travel to. This is where I may expect to find myself, after the battle?”
“I do not know the particular plans as regards your Majesty.” That was a downright lie. He knew, all right. Back in the French camp, the cart was already being painted that would take the invading king to Paris, like a captive in a Roman triumph.
Rain tiptoed on the leaves of the tree that spread over them. A drop hissed in the fire, which was well alight now, sending its shadows chasing round their shelter. Montjoy's horse shifted, and mouthed at its bit.
“Well, it'll all be the same a hundred years from now, as my grandmother says. God will work his way. I wonder how the world will look then? This tree will see it, though you and I will not. It's already seen a few hundred years, I don't doubt. Or a thousand.”
The smoke was making Montjoy sleepy, or he would not have spoken with such familiarity as he now did. “Maybe it watched Charlemagne's army passing by, or even the legions,” he said quietly. “We crossed a wall just now. That might be all that remains of an ancient church.” He was looking into the fire, and in its red flames seemed to see the Roman soldiers marching by, century by century.
Henry, beside him, watched too. “And a hundred years from now, Herald? I wonder what might it see then?”
There in the fire might be the answer, among the red and the gold and black. “As God wills it. But perhaps England and France are still the closest of rivals, still the closest of enemies.”
“That's hard to refute. And two hundred years? It's all but two hundred years since Louis the Dauphin was acclaimed King of England, remember! That will not happen again - not if I can prevent it through what I do now.”
“Maybe there'll be no war; maybe there'll be no need for one. Peace and the arts and philosophy; plays and poetry instead.”
“It's a hard to dislike that picture. Three hundred years, then.” Henry sounded as though he was half-dreaming.
In the fire, the pictures formed: French ships in the north, trying to bring an exiled king home. Swords on both sides of England. “War.” He hurried on. “Four hundred.”
“A great battle,” murmured Henry, watching the fire. “The red and the blue, in the rain. Cannon and cavalry. It repeats, does it not? What about five hundred years? Half a millennium.”
There was a silence, then a miniature explosion as some knot of wood in the fire combusted. Sparks showered over them. The dark branches above shifted in a sudden breeze. King and herald both jumped back a little, and glanced at each other uneasily. “We were on the same side, then, I think,” said Montjoy uncertainly. The fire burned with a fierce red glow.
“Maybe then, in six hundred years' time, the rivalry will be done for good.” Henry was determinedly hopeful.
“I pray so.”
“Though – never, not entirely, even if it just turns to bickering and fun!”
“We've been at odds for so long.” Montjoy was despondent, though he caught the edge of Henry's smile.
“But not always. We're not at odds now, for instance,” Henry pointed out.
Montjoy had not realised how close they were sitting, there on that tree-root. Their shoulders were touching. The steel of Henry's coat-of-plates was hard beneath the leather. He shifted a little on his seat, but did not move away, and neither did Henry. The pictures in the fire faded away, in the face of present and immediate reality.
What if he were to move closer, and closer yet, as his body suddenly urged him to? Close enough to feel the man's soft breath on his cheek, until at last -
He and all the court knew well enough where Henry's inclinations lay. Very few knew that Montjoy's inclinations lay in that same direction. At Westminster the connection had leapt between them like the spark from a cat's fur, or between two pieces of amber.
“Herald.” An amused, almost affectionate note, underlain by seriousness. “Whatever are you thinking of, behind that mask of yours?”
He was startled into looking straight into the king's blue eyes: blue as the shield of France, and his hair golden as its lilies.
“I am thinking -” his voice trailed into silence. Then, “For all that your Majesty is a king, you are yet as vulnerable as any man. You will be so in the battle.”
“Indeed. Does that idea disturb you, Herald?”
“It will disturb me then.” A breath. “It disturbs me tonight.”
“Tonight.” A soft laugh. “Well, perhaps tonight is not the time to act on that. Our thoughts should be on eternity. But after the battle? Should things fall out other than seems likely?”
Another pause. “How can they?”
“The fire didn't show us what lies just ahead.”
How strange, to look to a fire to know the future – but it was fire of yew-wood. The waymarker. “No. But it will be difficult, however things fall out.”
“Difficult. Not impossible. It would be impossible to go and lie down on the other side of this tree-trunk, for instance.”
Montjoy's eyes flickered the few yards beyond the dark and writhen wood towards the shadowed space there. Oh, God, he wanted it - it would take just a minute or two, the way he was by now -
“Ah, do not tempt me! But as you say – eternity.”
“Then this will have to do for now.” And there it was, Henry's breath on his cheek, a scrape of soft stubble, warmth and wetness at his mouth. The world turned upside down. He clutched at Henry's shoulders, and kissed back.
“That will almost do. For now,” he whispered a while later, as lovers whisper, and leaned his head against Henry's. “And afterwards, we might have time. For the earth, and for here and now, as well as for heaven and eternity.”
“Maybe.” Their mouths touched again.
In the middle distance there was a sudden outbreak of cries, swearing, and the sound of a scuffle. Henry's body turned from dalliance to action in an instant. “Those damned archers. What are the fools up to now?” He was on his feet. Montjoy rose likewise, though rather more slowly and with a grunt. For all that anything other than kisses was impossible, his body craved more.
It was still raining softly, in the world outside. Henry pulled his hood up. “I must be off. Herald – remember -”
A last kiss, that searched his mouth, searched out his heart, and was suddenly over. “I will.”
Henry was gone from under the tree in a tossing and a whip of branches. Montjoy untied his horse's reins, bent his head into its neck for a moment, and followed more slowly; barely able to believe what had happened, though his body assured him that it had. And as he went back onto the track-way, pushing the yew's strong, supple boughs out of his way, he saw the round red berries among its leaves: red as blood, but holding the seed of new life within.